Rare: Two Historic Letters from R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski Regarding the Fate of The Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilna. Vilna 1935.
Presented here are two highly important and historic letters signed by R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, the pre-eminent Torah leader of all Jewry until World War II. These letters are written to the Federation of Synagogues in London, with a request to secure funds in order to maintain the famed Jewish Cemetery of Vilna.
A brief historical background:
The Jewish cemetery of Vilna, located in the Sznipiszok district, operated as early as 1487 and was in use until 1831. It was closed due to the lack of new burial space, but at the beginning of the 20th century, this cemetery was still constantly visited. All famous Jews from the local community were buried in this cemetery, including the Vilna Gaon, the Be’er HaGolah, Chayei Adam and others. In 1935, Polish authorities decided to demolish this cemetery and build a sports stadium in its place, because based on the Polish law of that time, a cemetery which was not in use for more than one hundred years could be demolished. From 1935 until 1940 local authorities in Vilnius and the Jewish community of Vilna had a continuous discussion regarding this matter. The Jewish community held that this was an unquestionable act and they could not destroy their cemetery based on Jewish religious law. They were represented by its spiritual leader R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, as detailed in these letters. Ultimately, due to the outbreak of The Second World War and changing political situation in Lithuania, these discussions stopped for a while and the cemetery was not desecrated during the lifetime of R. Chaim Ozer. After the war however, the new Soviet authorities in the city continued with the previous idea to build a Sports Palace instead of the old Jewish cemetery. During the years of 1948-1955, all tombstones were removed from the old cemetery and some of them were transferred to the new Jewish cemetery on Sudervė road in Vilnius (the Vilna Gaon and his family included). In 1971, a monstrous soviet-style theater was built on the site, but has been sitting abandoned since 1991.
The Vilna cemetery has been a subject of controversy for decades. As recently as 2015, the Lithuanian Government decided to build a massive tourist center on the now empty, desecrated land surrounding the abandoned theater center. Although the Government claimed to have received permission from a certain Jewish organization for this new development complex, there was outrage and dismay from leading Lithuanian Roshei Yeshivos and Rabbonim who vehemently opposed this idea, and held it was absolutely prohibited to develop the site, since the bodies are still buried underground. In August of 2021, the plans to develop the site were finally abandoned due to a decrease in tourism because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The two letters in this lot - one in English and one in Hebrew - give us a glimpse of R. Chaim Ozer’s efforts to thwart the government’s decree regarding the cemetery. They detail the significance and historical importance of the old cemetery. Although their plan was never carried out, as mentioned above, at the time of this writing a proposition was in place to annul the decree, by which the community was to restore the cemetery grounds to its former glory. In this letter, R. Chaim Ozer personally requested “about 1600 pounds” (approximately 120,000 GBP, or 160,000 USD in today’s currency) in order to restore the cemetery grounds.
In very good condition. Two letters, each with the personal autograph of R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski. In the Hebrew letter, an additional few words are added in his handwriting; the remainder is written by his secretary. The letter written in English is signed by R. Chaim Ozer personally - with his autograph in English (!).
Letters from R. Chaim Ozer of this nature are exceptionally rare and are of unique historical significance.